The totals may differ from country to country, and yet in every corner of the globe the uncomfortable fact is that increasing numbers of officers are taking their lives.
In the UK, approximately 20 police officers will kill themselves this year. In the US that number will exceed 200. The totals may differ from country to country, and yet in every corner of the globe the uncomfortable fact is that increasing numbers of officers are taking their lives.
Since leaving policing, I have spent years studying topics like vulnerability, shame, and self-worth. In September, I delivered a series of webinars to police organisations all over the world in support of World Suicide Prevention Day to gather data and offer strategies and tools to participants.
What is stopping officers talking?
In a recent conversation a force wellbeing lead told me that their latest poster campaign had achieved significantly higher success than previous efforts, because they had stopped targeting communal areas and focused on the toilets. Why? Because, as one officer explained: “When I’m feeling vulnerable, that’s where I go to hide.”
For me, that story illustrates a false belief prevalent in policing culture the world over – that vulnerability is weakness, and that weakness is not acceptable.
Through the Behind Blue Lines Podcast I have interviewed a number of officers who survived suicide, as well as the widows of those who did not.
There is a recurring theme – officers believed that by asking for help, they would be deemed unworthy, rejected by their colleagues, and their careers put at risk. They did not believe anyone else was struggling and that they must keep their feelings hidden.
In the webinars, participants were asked to complete this short sentence: “I grew up believing vulnerability was…” Above are the word clouds created by their answers.
These answers are from first responders serving all over the world, and yet there is just one dominant theme – Weakness.
When vulnerability is viewed as courage
Separately, participants were also asked to provide examples of when they last saw another person do something courageous. Examples included standing up to a bully, telling their colleagues they had cancer, and giving an opinion that was not in line with the status quo.
The examples of courage offered by participants all adhered to Dr Brown’s definition of vulnerability – yet the same participants widely agreed that their personal perception of vulnerability is weakness.
The reason for this second question is that in her research, Dr Brené Brown found that the greatest myth around vulnerability is that it is weakness. She defines vulnerability as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure – and as such, the research finds vulnerability to be our greatest measure of courage.
The hundreds of examples of courage offered by the participants all adhered to Dr Brown’s definition of vulnerability, and yet the same participants widely agreed that their personal perception of vulnerability is weakness. This is because of the two paradoxes of vulnerability identified by Dr Brown:
- When we see vulnerability in others, we see it as courage, but when we see it in ourselves, we see it as weakness.
- Vulnerability is one of the last things we want anyone to see in ourselves, but one of the first things we look for in others.
It’s these paradoxes that offer an insight into why so many officers feel as though they are alone and must maintain a show of strength and indifference to deflect from their personal struggles, and it will require organisational and leadership support to develop the cultures needed to demystify this common belief.
Participants from the webinars reported that one of their greatest takeaways was the opportunity to hear from others and see for themselves that they are not alone in their thoughts and fears.
Enabling officers to ask for help
From an organisational perspective, three key steps can be taken to develop cultures enabling officers to ask for help more readily.
Leaders being prepared to go first – and modelling this behaviour by sharing with their teams the times that have been challenging for them – helps to foster a sense of common humanity, and that we are not alone in our struggles.
- Decoupling vulnerability from weakness, and instead recognising it as the greatest measure of courage is a critical action towards creating a psychologically safe working environment where people can be open, ask for what they need, and receive support from managers and peers.
- Providing safe spaces for people to talk together and share without judgement from others has the power to increase engagement, wellbeing, and ultimately performance. Empathy is our greatest antidote to help people move from hiding in the toilets to being seen and heard with care.
- Leaders being prepared to go first – and modelling this behaviour by sharing with their teams the times that have been challenging for them – helps to foster a sense of common humanity, and that we are not alone in our struggles. This can be contagious in others feeling open to sharing their experiences and connecting deeply.
These three actions combined will make all the difference in normalising asking for help, improving wellbeing and engagement, and – most importantly – contributing significantly to saving officer lives.
Gareth Davies served as a leader in both the Metropolitan and Surrey Police. He has studied under Dr Kristen Neff, the world’s leading academic in the study of self-compassion, and under Dr Brené Brown. He is certified to deliver Brené’s ground-breaking research into topics including vulnerability, courage and shame as part of the leadership and development programmes offered by his own consultancy, The Bravest Path. He is also the creator of Behind Blue Lines, a podcast exploring the emotional cost of trauma to our emergency services and those that love them.
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